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Meet The Girl Who Ran To Syria To Marry A Militant And The Mother Who Brought Her Back

She converted to Islam, changed her name, and ran away to Syria to marry a jihadi. When she changed her mind, her mother was there to bring her home.

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Petalo was a practicing Catholic before her conversion to Islam, her mother, Monique Verbert, said in an interview with Dutch television in September, adding that at first her daughter brought home a Bible and then brought home a Qur'an.


In a post from Dec. 3, 2013, Petalo explained why she had chosen to wear the niqab — a conservative form of hijab that only shows a woman's eyes — despite objections from her parents.

"Assalamu alaikoum oughty [sister]. You wear [the hijab] for your creator and not because it makes you beautiful or ugly. I wear the niqab myself and receive only judgment, even from my parents, but Alhamdulillah [thank God] it strengthens my Iman [faith]. You wear your hijab for one reason and that is to please the creator and not for your fellow man."


Verbert told Dutch television that her daughter, whom she described as a "very sweet, sensitive girl," thought Yilmaz was "a nice man" who was fighting against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. "She said again and again: 'Mom, look at that guy — isn't it good what he does?'"


According to Yilmaz, it was an amicable split. "We both knew it wasn't going to work," Yilmaz told the Sunday Times. "I gave her her due ... and went on with my jihad." He says he even tried to send Petalo back to her family after their divorce, and she refused to leave Syria. "She said Islam forbids men to send their wives back once they have migrated," he said. "So I didn't send her back." He left Petalo with the wife of a friend and returned to the battlefield.

According to Turkish and Dutch media reports, Yilmaz abused his young bride and eventually abandoned her to a life of sexual slavery. "I believed Yilmaz. I gave everything for him," Petalo reportedly told a Turkish newspaper. "He used me like a slave and threw me away." In the Netherlands, reports circulated that Petalo had been sold to another fighter, or possibly a brothel.


The divorce was finalized by July, according to an archived question on Yilmaz's now-suspended Ask.Fm page.

This account has been suspended / Via

Verbert, who described the message from her daughter as "a cry for help," went to the authorities and asked for their help in retrieving Petalo. Everyone, from police officials to the Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry, discouraged Verbert from attempting another trip to Syria to bring her daughter home.

The anxious mother refused to listen and began to plan how she would bring her daughter home on her own. "Sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do," Verbert told The Telegraph. "She rang me and said, 'Take me home.' But she could not leave Raqqah without help."

After seemingly having been tipped off to Verbert's rescue plans, on Nov. 17 a Dutch journalist published an editorial directed at Yilmaz, asking where Petalo (using her adopted name Aicha) was and urging him to "return her" to her mother.

The article alleged that Yilmaz had lured Petalo — "a barely adult girl" — to Syria under false pretenses and treated her "like a slave" before "gifting" her to a Tunisian fellow soldier.

Early reports suggested that Verbert had actually gone into Syria and retrieved her daughter from the city of Raqqah, but a Dutch official confirmed that the two women had met on the Turkish border. It is not yet known how Petalo traveled the approximately 60 miles from Raqqah to the border.

Petalo was given a "provisional release" on Nov. 25, on the understanding that she would adhere to certain specific conditions. Although the court declined to give the precise conditions for release, an official said the teenager should "not commit any crimes and adhere to any request by the police and justice officials." One of these conditions is to not speak to the press, due to "the sensitivity of the case."

The Dutch Public Broadcasting Organization reported Nov. 30 that Petalo and her family were in hiding and closely guarded, as the teenager was apparently receiving death threats.

Petalo could face up to 30 years in prison if she is found guilty of terrorism charges.

Ellie Hall is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 6055 A264 DADD AADC 347E 5986 547C C11C DD7D 176A.

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